July 18, 2012 - It's lights out for downtown signs.
Clarkston City Council voted 4-2, July 9, to take a hard line on enforcing a sign ordinance prohibiting illuminated signs, at least for now.
"I patronize the businesses in this town, and I want them to succeed, but rules are rules," said Councilman Thomas Hunter. "We're just telling them they have to follow the same procedure anybody else would if they wanted an amendment to the zoning ordinance. They've been told we won't enforce any provisions of the ordinance while we're deciding what we're going to do."
In the meantime, they're getting away with violating the ordinance, he said.
From Hunter's point of view, "I think we need to take a position. Either we're going to enforce the ordinance, which we should do, or we don't need a zoning ordinance if we aren't going to enforce it."
Village resident Ginny Schultz spoke up, "I can see no reason whatsoever for you to waver one bit from what your rules are.
"A neon sign is not going to bring anybody in off the street. It is what their business stands for, it is what they do, and their customer relations," Schultz added.
Former Mayor Sharron Catallo said, "enforcing the ordinance doesn't stop them from coming to ask for a change. We can enforce our ordinances and still address the retailers' concerns."
Council members Richard Bisio and Stephen Hargis opposed the motion. Councilwoman Peg Roth abstained from voting.
Some downtown retailers feel lighted signs are needed.
After opening Village Fashion Boutique about a year and a half ago, owner Christina Calka put up a neon "open" sign because it is a good reminder to say "we're open," she said.
From her point of view, it is particularly helpful for extended shopping hours and attracts people who are passing through, especially at night. Shoppers have told Calka they turned around because they saw her sign.
This spring, Calka received a letter indicating she'd broken the city's sign ordinance, which she had been unaware of until that moment.
Since receiving the letter, local retailers approached the city on April 9 about amending the sign ordinance. A few weeks later, the City estimated a price of $2,250 for a sign ordinance amendment.
"The Clarkston retailers are not in a position to spend upwards of $2,500 to modify an ordinance," said Roth, also a member of the retailers group. "I think that amount of money to amend an ordinance is just outrageous – we're a very low key group. We don't have fees; we don't have a bank account."
Although the retailers developed a smaller internally lit open sign, and it was unofficially "okayed" by the city, hanging the sign would still require an amendment to the ordinance because it is internally lit.
According to Zoning Ordinance, Article 22, "illuminated wall signs using an interior light source are prohibited. Signs using visible bulbs, neon, fluorescent, or similar lights are prohibited."
The sign can be seen in the front window of KH Homes on Main Street.
On July 9, Mayor Joe Luginski said, "I think that as a council, we've tried to work with [the retailers.] We've waited. We got the answers to questions they wanted to know the answers to. We [unofficially] agree that the sign in front of [KH Homes] today is fine if they want to pursue that."
No representatives from the retailers group have shared their case at a city council meeting since April 9.
While the retailers regrouped to decide if they would apply to amend the ordinance, City Manager Dennis Ritter held any other violation notices in abeyance until July 9, when he asked the council for guidance.
The council will enforce the zoning ordinance by sending letters of violation, and included the retailers in their July 23 meeting agenda.
Roth said the retailers will decide how to pursue the sign ordinance on Tuesday evening, July 17, but she doesn't believe they will be able to procure the $2,250 for the amendment. The city will hold its next meeting on July 23 at 7 p.m. at the Village Hall.
Clarkston News reporter